Johan Santana on Twins Hall of Fame: ‘The honor means everything’
On Wednesday night, Johan Santana returned to Minnesota for the first time since 2007. As he drove into Minneapolis, he took his family on a sightseeing tour missing the only site that mattered to him.
“I just drove by what used to be the Metrodome,” he said by phone from the passenger seat. “And it’s not there. That ... that was touchy for me. I told my family, ‘Look, that’s where everything happened for me.’ ”
Santana will be inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame on Saturday at Target Field. He won Cy Young Awards in 2004 and 2006 and probably earned another he did not receive.
Former Twins General Manager Terry Ryan acquired him with a trade in the Rule 5 draft, which usually shuffles around failing prospects. He would begin his big-league career as an overmatched long reliever and work his way into the Twins rotation, finishing his time in Minnesota with a 93-44 record and a 3.22 ERA despite just four full seasons as a starter.
Among Twins and Senators, he posted a better winning percentage than Walter Johnson, a better ERA than Bert Blyleven, more strikeouts than Jim Perry and a walks-and-hits-per-inning ratio just .03 off Johnson’s stunning 1.06.
Wednesday night, awash in memories, the owner of half of the Cy Youngs in Twins history began solemnly reciting names rather than achievements.
He remembered pelting former Twins ace Brad Radke with questions. “I wanted to be next to him all the time,” Santana said. “I followed him everywhere.”
He honored the late Rick Stelmaszek, the irascible Twins bullpen coach. “It didn’t matter where we were — in the bullpen, on the street,” Santana said. “He’d say, ‘Step into my office,’ and we’d sit and talk about the game.”
He detailed the advice given him by Bobby Cuellar, his Class AAA Edmonton pitching coach, who helped the lefthander from Venezuela develop the changeup that would accelerate his career. “I had the right grip,” Santana said. “He taught me how to loosen my hand, and let the ball fly.”
He recalled his big-league pitching coach, Rick Anderson, guiding him through the three-dimensional chess of pitcher-batter confrontations. “He’s at the top, because he worked with me every day,” Santana said.
He listed Tom Kelly, who taught him how to work, and Ron Gardenhire, who moved him into the rotation, and the teammates who comprised the core of the relentlessly entertaining and ultimately frustrated Twins teams of the 2000s.
“We were all from different places,” Santana said. “But we were all the same.”
But not equal. Santana was the most dominant of the Twins from 2003 to ’07, turning him into a star and leading to his departure.
The Twins knew he would leave in free agency after the 2008 season, so GM Bill Smith, in his first important move after replacing Ryan, traded him in January 2008 to the New York Mets.
Santana signed a six-year deal worth $137.5 million with the Mets. He pitched in four seasons with them, missing the 2011 season with a shoulder injury. In 2012, he pitched a no-hitter on June 1, throwing 134 pitches. His ERA at the time was 2.38. His ERA the rest of the year was 8.27. He would return in 2012 and post his worst career ERA as a starter, 4.85, and his comeback attempts would fail.
His rise was more unlikely than his demise. Although unremarkable as a low-level minor league pitcher, the Twins liked his athletic build and competitiveness.
As a rookie, his ERA was 6.49. His second year, in 2001, it was 4.74. In 2002, the Twins demoted him to Edmonton. Cuellar and Santana worked on the tension on his changeup grip.
With a fastball measured at 94 miles per hour, an effective slider that clocked at 87 and a changeup that looked like a fastball out of his hand but registered 78, Santana had found his superpower.
He could get hitters out by going “up and down, in and out, and fast and slow,” he said. Hitters now had to guess what he was going to throw and where he was going to throw it to have a chance to make solid contact.
As Jim Kaat was walking out of a Baseball Hall of Fame reception recently, he saw another dominant lefty, Randy Johnson, and said: “If I had your fastball to throw up and in and Johan Santana’s changeup to throw down and away, that’s all I would’ve asked for, all I would’ve needed.”
Santana, 39, will receive another lefthanded compliment Saturday.
“The honor means everything to me,” he said. “Everything. I wasn’t expecting anything when I started my career here. I was just another guy playing the game.”
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • email@example.com